Excerpt from The Sisters Mortland by Sally Beauman, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Sisters Mortland

by Sally Beauman

The Sisters Mortland
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2006, 448 pages
    Feb 2007, 448 pages

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I think they must be important, because Lucas says he plans to complete four drawings of me this year. I'm sure that's an honor. It must mean that something about me interests him. The first drawing, Spring Maisie, was finished in the Easter vacation. Summer Maisie is the one he's working on now; Autumn Maisie and Winter Maisie will follow in due course. I'm not allowed to see them until all four seasons are finished. I'm not allowed to inspect The Sisters Mortland portrait, either—and neither is Julia or Finn. I've tried several times to sneak a look, but I've always been thwarted. When he's out, Lucas locks the windows and the door. He bought a new padlock for the purpose. "How paranoid can you get?" Julia says. Julia's just returned from a year's postgraduate study at Berkeley, California. It's affected her clothes and vocabulary. "Paranoid" is now a favorite word.

"Come on, Maisie, you're daydreaming," Lucas prompts. "Talk to me. Your face is getting set and fixed. This won't work if you look sulky. It's all wrong."

"I don't sulk," I reply. But I've heard the warning note of irritation, so I concentrate again. I'm beginning to wish I'd selected a different event to describe, but there's no getting out of it now. That round, cold pebble is still stuck in my throat. I frown, Lucas waits, the pencil hovers, and—obedient to him as always—I walk back into the past.

I watch the three of us set off, that afternoon, for the village. We take the path through the woods, something we rarely do. Julia is wearing a new white dress; it has paper nylon Bardot petticoats that make the skirt stiff and bell shaped. It has broderie anglaise around the neck. She's turned into a woman overnight, and she's so blazingly beautiful that it hurts my eyes. My sister Finn is wearing old clothes as usual: ancient slacks, a crumpled blouse, and sandals. She's slender and straight as a willow wand. I can tell what Julia's thinking—she's usually thinking about herself, so it isn't too hard—but with Finn, I can't. She's intricate, like a knot I can't undo.

My sisters stride ahead, arguing. I bring up the rear. I'm wearing brown linen shorts, chestnut brown Clarks sandals, and a white Aertex shirt that Finn's long outgrown. I've been reading the "Famous Five" books in secret (they're top of Stella's list of forbidden literature) and, like the immortal George of Kirrin Island, I want to be a boy. I whistle to the dog only I can see—we were between dogs that summer, just as we are now. I put my hands in my pockets and scuff my shoes. I count the trees and name them as I pass. I think I am happy; happiness is catching. After a while, Finn and Julia stop arguing, and Finn—who has a very sweet voice—begins to sing, first a madrigal, then, jiving about and laughing, Elvis's "Blue Suede Shoes."

We come out of the wood, and the heat of the sun hits us. The valley below us is burning gold. The hedgerows are thick with elderberries; thirty elms march in a long line down the lane. The apples in the orchards are ripening; the wheat ripples. God has arranged forty-one cows in perfect formation in Acre Field. There are larks overhead, so high that I can't see them, but I can hear them, piping alarm, filling the sky with nervous song. I breathe in the air of England; it's buoyant in the lungs and lifts my heart. Finn takes my hand; even Julia is elated. We start dancing, running, and jumping down the hill.

Copyright © 2005 by Sally Beauman

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